Ruth E. Walker
Listen. I’ve got something to tell you but first, close your eyes. Ready? Now, imagine you’re in a dark room, so dark you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. Okay. Now pay attention to the sounds around you. Tell me about them.
For example, I can tell you that three cars just drove past my house. My office is in the front and we’re close to our street. And the windows are old so I can hear quite a bit. Here comes another car, tires sizzling on the wet asphalt, engine whirring, the whoosh of air so clear as it passes right in front and now all the whoosh, whirr and sizzle fading, fading, fading…gone. It’s silent again.
So what about your sounds? Did you default to reportage: three cars just drove past? Or did you work to recreate the sounds around you? Sizzle, whirr, whoosh.
Sounds like fiction
There is a time and place for good old narrative in any story. It’s a shortcut to convey information without getting bogged down in too many details. Narrative is useful to bridge between scenes, or transition time and place, or give readers a break after a busy action scene.
For example: She stopped when she heard the sound of a shotgun in the distance.
This is basic narration giving readers an important detail and setting up the scene to follow. But if you don’t need narration and instead, you want your reader to be closer to your character’s POV, to feel their reaction, to hear what they heard, it’s wise to move from narration into action. Bring the reader in closer.
Closer: She stopped when a shotgun fired in the distance.
Even Closer: Bang! She held still and listened. Was that a shotgun?
In the Even Closer example, we are much more inside the character’s POV, the sound followed by the physical reaction followed by the internal thought “Was that a shotgun?”
Run your own soundboard
Just like sizzle, whirr and whoosh, Bang! is a use of figurative language: it is onomatopoeia, or when a word mimics or recreates the actual sound. Traditionally, onomatopoeia should be in italics but that rule, like many others, has loosened. The main point is that writers need to be consistent throughout the whole story. Personally, I prefer not to use italics for onomatopoeia.
Similarly, how sounds are introduced is a matter of choice. There is nothing wrong with using the phrase “the sound of” to set up a noise. But like good old narrative, too much of it becomes repetitive, slows down the pacing and does little to engage your reader’s imagination.
First, he heard the sound of a door opening and then he heard the sound of footsteps and he held his breath. Then he heard the sound of bricks falling.
Something – the door? – creaked. A scrape of shoe leather on the floorboards, once, twice, three times, coming closer. He kept his own breaths small and then a clattering thump of falling bricks and dust washed over him.
Notice in this last example how the sound and the dust both “washed over” the character. Sounds create vibrations that our ears hear but also that our bodies feel – sometimes on a subconscious level and sometimes, like stomping feet in a packed stadium, the sound rattles our bones.
A wise writer appeals to the full range of senses, leaving room for a full body experience for the character and consequently, for the reader.
The type of sound you are working with will dictate how it needs to show in your story.
Natural sounds are the most obvious because they are the sounds that fit into the scene of the story. The roar of a lion on safari or at the zoo; the revving of engines at a car race; the plink-plinking of rainfall on leaves in a forest.
Sounds with meaning express the perception of characters and the mood of the scene. So the whimpering of a baby can evoke nurturing responses “Oh, Hassan, our sweet baby is waking at last” versus “Is that thing going to cry all night?” So, if that whimper is to irritate, your character needs to react to the sound, imagining it increase in pitch and intensity.
Similarly, pounding on the door, shattering glass, rapid-fire tapping of toes, drumming of fingers, grinding of gears – these are sounds meant to express a mood and to raise tension. And what about the swish of silk, popping of a champagne cork, the crackle of a fireplace? Depending on how you use it, sound can create a warm sexy moment or a sinister seduction. You’re the sound technician and you need to create that choice.
Finally, what about imagined sounds? Like sounds that carry meaning, these are noises that only your character can hear and are part of their perception of their world. Held in their thoughts, these sounds relate directly to who your character is. An egotist may hear applause from her co-workers every time she makes a point in the boardroom. A self-conscious introvert might imagine snickers when he’s forced to offer an opinion. And some over-imaginative characters could hear non-existent sounds all the time.
But like any action/reaction, remember to crosscheck your character’s imaginary sounds with their wants and, more importantly, their needs. That introvert wants to have others value his opinion but he needs to first gain confidence. So as the story moves forward and your character stiffens his spine, that imagined snickering should fade away and eventually, be replaced with real approval from others.
Watch the volume
Sound, like the four other senses (taste, touch, smell, sight) needs to be balanced. Writers should consider where and when sound is best used. Here are some questions to ask when you are editing that first or second draft:
- Do you want background sound or is it important for readers to hear it loud and clear?
- Is the sound revealing something, hiding something or simply part of the expected scenery?
- Would another sense be stronger to convey the mood or intention of the scene?
- Is this sound logical — i.e., could it truly be heard, is it a sound that fits the location, is it a sound that would actually be noticed by the characters?
Earlier this month, I wrote about using the sense of smell in writing. Look for future posts on taste, touch and sight. Well, that sounds like a wrap. Thanks for listening.